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On a Green Horizon: Suburban Environmental Strategy in Lafayette

by Worldchanging SF blogger, Matt Waxman

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A month ago, the city council of Lafayette passed a resolution adopting the “City of Lafayette Environmental Strategy�.* The “strategy� plan will act as guide for sustainability-based planning, and includes guiding principles, goals, and proposed action steps for 2007 through 2010. As a valuable starting point, the plan serves as the impetus for not only the city’s planning but also citizen participation. As reported in Wednesday’s Contra Costa Times, a task force of council members and residents will be organized to make recommendations about implementation.

Lafayette is a suburban city of about 24,000 residents located east of the Caldecott tunnel and west of Walnut Creek via highway 24. The area is nestled into the rolling east bay hills with access to watersheds, reservoir, trails, open vistas, and its own BART station.

The next four years will be an opportunity for the city and community to get on-board with sustainability, assess the current situation, and decide how the city will navigate and respond to a changing environmental context.

2007 will begin the process by proposing an assessment. Baseline levels, milestones, and goals will be established for "current residential water and energy use and solid waste generation, and water quality in creeks," as well as “community use of public transportation.� According to the strategy plan, next year Lafayette will also look into the city's participation in ICLEI (International Coalition for Local Environmental Initiatives) and the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

Through 2010, the environmental strategy task force will investigate a range of potential sustainability-oriented initiatives. Action steps proposed include meeting the goals set in 2007, creating green building guidelines and incentives, encouraging businesses to recycle and conserve energy, considering a mandated use of electric vehicles within a certain perimeter of the city center, developing an educational California Native Plant Garden, and instituting participatory outreach efforts such as an environmental speaker series and Earth Day event.

Along with advancing strategy progress, the task force will also support existing programs, such as downtown housing densification and senior accomodations, and advise the city about partnering with organizations and agencies. Partnership ideas are a “low emission school bus service,� “expansion of affordable public transport,� and school-wide promotion of environmental stewardship and “healthy nutrition among Lafayette children.�

The environmental strategy adopts the Bruntland Report definition of sustainable development. The following principles, outlined in the strategy, will guide implementation:

  1. The importance of environmental sustainability should be considered in City policy and decisions.
  2. The protection, preservation and
    restoration of the natural environmental are high priorities of the
    City.

  3. Broad community cooperation among the
    City government, businesses, residents, community organizations, and
    schools and other service providers is essential to effective community
    governance.

  4. Community awareness, responsibility,
    participation and education are key elements of an environmentally
    sustainable community.

  5. Environmental quality, economic health
    and social equity are related.

  6. The City recognizes that it is part of
    a wider community and that local environmental issues cannot be
    separated from their broader context.

In short, the principles focus on environmental policy and stewardship; community cooperation, awareness, and participation; an appreciation of the interrelationship between environment, economics, and social equity; and a recognition of the city’s relationship to its regional context.

The CCTimes article notes how the idea for an environmental strategy came from council members, city staff, high school students, and local residents who joined together last year and studied the work of other cities. Despite an existing eco-consciousness, the locals decided Lafayette must step-up its commitment:

"What we have now is mostly housekeeping, processes to recycle paper," [Councilman] Anderson said. "It's a basic level of environmental consciousness that operates in many households and businesses. To have a policy that begins to look at local sources of food, water use, that develops audits to understand why water use is at the level it's at and see what we can do to change that, that's taking it a step further."

If Lafayette decides to join ICLEI and the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, the city would be committing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions -- thus taking another step further. Cities that join ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection Campaign also commit to completing five milestones; the first is conducting a baseline inventory and the third is producing a local plan, both of which the environmental strategy provide. And pending Lafayette’s 2007 assessment of water, energy, waste, and transport, the city should have data available for computing emissions and reduction targets. Lafayette is positioning itself well for involvement.

Joining ICLEI also opens up opportunities for Bay Area regional cooperation. The city can tap into guiding principle six: “The City recognizes that it is part of a wider community and that local environmental issues cannot be separated from their broader context.� The Contra Costa County board of supervisors (the county in which Lafayette resides) just voted to join ICLEI in 2007. Neighboring Alameda County and ten of its cities have already signed on to reduce emissions as a team. Add synergy across all nine Bay Area counties and powerful, regional-level action may start to coalesce.

Urban planning with long-range vision is key for tackling and adapting to change, growth, and conservation. WorldChanging’s Sarah Rich writes this week about New York City accepting the 2030 Challenge with its comprehensive “plaNYC� project. The 2030 Challenge proposes a carbon-neutral building industry by 2030. Lafayette isn’t a regional metropolis expecting a million new residents to impact century-old infrastructure over the next 25 years, but it can still learn from this wide-angle, long-term approach.

In the Bay Area, San Francisco’s “Climate Action Plan� aims to reduce greenhouse gasses 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, and Oakland is hoping to be oil independent by 2020. For an example of a small scale town, the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan of Ireland (as recently reported on WorldChanging) shoots for energy independence by 2021 and outlines detailed action steps to assist the town of 7,000. By contrast, Lafayette’s strategy (which doesn’t yet have emissions targets) only looks to 2010, which is only four years away.

Does the timeline of the environmental strategy look far enough into the future? There are tangible differences in scale and context between Lafayette’s strategy plan and other sustainability planning projects. The plan lacks specific numbers, but this data will come as the flexible strategy is implemented. I think the mid-range reality of Lafayette’s environmental strategy sets the stage for good things to come. A vision document, it’s says what the city needs to do first.

Will the short timeline lend immediacy to the project and spur desired community participation? I’m not sure, but four years is definitely enough time to capture residents’ attention and create action. While we’ll have to wait and see the work of the task force, the effort has potential to ground community awareness in the plan’s process, and thus successful, future long-range planning.

Something else I find particularly interesting about the environmental strategy is whom it has been designed for: Lafayette, a suburban city. The strategy plan takes on the challenge of improving the livability and health of a suburban landscape, with all its current habits, lifestyles, use-patterns, SUVs, big single-family homes, and cul-de-sacs. Lafayette is predominately affluent and white, the crime rate is low, the schools are great, and the surrounding environment is beautiful.

Architect Richard Rodgers recently wrote an excellent piece in the UK Guardian about the importance of bringing “intelligent and design led planning� to suburbs. Maybe they’re not fast-paced city living, but peripheral communities can also have a place in the urban mosaic. As Rodgers proposes:

“We can all recognise beautiful family-friendly neighbourhoods, be they leafy Georgian terraces or the new waterfront developments in Amsterdam and Barcelona. We must all ask why we cannot aspire to this quality of development for all. Architecture is not just aesthetic; it has social, moral and political dimensions. Badly planned and maintained spaces and buildings play an important part in brutalising people.
“Urban renaissance needs to spread out beyond our city centres. Most of our city-centre population growth consists of young and single people. To draw families back to cities, we need to create beautiful and family-friendly suburbs too. Architects and planners have often neglected, or even derided, suburbs. They may lack the urban vitality and mix many of us enjoy, but they provide a quieter, greener environment for families and can enhance the mix of housing that a city can offer. The best suburbs -- linked to the city by good public transport -- already offer a model for a different style of environmentally sustainable urban living. We need to bring all of them up to this standard, through intensification and new infrastructure.�

Lafayette isn’t anything close to the stereotyped freshly-laid tract development; in fact, it might classify under “best suburbs�, as Rodgers puts it. But on the other side of the Berkeley and Oakland hills, low-density and fairly non-diverse, bedroom communities exist. And despite the closeness of living in reach of San Francisco, the area feels like suburbia (I grew up in neighboring Moraga; you do feel insulated) and I’d bet most people don’t work within city limits. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census says the average commute time for Lafayette residents was 30.2 minutes, 91 percent of residents worked outside of home, twelve percent took public transport to work, and only 1.1 percent walked to work.

It’s necessary to improve energy conservation, reduce use of gas-guzzling SUVs, and sustain the beauty of ridgelines and undeveloped land, but I’d like to see how a consideration for social equity and the economics (i.e. the cost) of living amidst Lafayette’s beautiful environs factors in.

The Bay Area is a high cost real estate market. Lafayette is an expensive and desired place of residence: the median home price in November 2006 was about $1.1 million. Rodgers’ essay asks UK suburbs to respond to "social, moral and political dimensions" of architecture and be “beautiful and family-friendly;� I think the Lafayette environmental strategy desires the same. But fulfilling the desire is a challenge ahead. The fifth environmental strategy principle states: “Environmental quality, economic health and social equity are related." How do all three relate in Lafayette? And how does Lafayette envision them to be related in the future, city-wide and region-wide? Lafayette might ask: What role should the city play in contributing to an equitable residential and business community? And what changes, physical and mindset, need to happen if the suburban city tackles social, economic, and racial diversity among residents and its workforce, as interrelated to environmental sustainability?

Maybe Lafayette will end up greening the American Dream. We should applaud Lafayette for adopting a well-thought, citizen-produced environmental strategy. The plans can build an infrastructure of community consciousness, and action. With city and residents behind it, the environmental strategy may lay the groundwork for turning a Bay Area suburb bright green.


* The environmental strategy is included in the November 13th city council agenda packet, see pdf pages 8-11. The Spring 2006 edition of the City of Lafayette “Vistas� newsletter (pdf) also discusses the strategy in draft state.

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